Did someone say something?

Ce billet est rédigé en anglais pour le séminaire Remix Culture, CU.

Some thoughts about : Jonathan Lethem, « The Ecstasy of Influence : A Plagiarism », Harpers, February 2007.

I believe plagiarism is one of the most complex issues of our time. The more I read about Copy right, Copy left, intellectual property or even what is called the « Fair use » in United States, the more I get confused. All those questions about property in the art world appeared quite recently even if art practice has always been an appropriation practice. I don’t think Raphael had a hard time with the justice when he painted myths that he didn’t write himself. When I taught those issues to my students last semester, I decided to give the example of the graffiti. Graffitists not only appropriate images from the pop culture and art world, but also put their works on private and public property. Also, a graffiti is not made to last, but rather to be modified, not to say totally covered, by the other graffitist. There always has been this dichotomy between art and vandalism, but now, as this art form is getting more and more institutionalized and popular, another question comes through : the one of plagiarism. When graffiti artists didn’t earn any money from their work, it wasn’t much of a problem. But when their practice actually becomes a lucrative activity, they face a whole new set of problems. In that sense, does the copy right exist only to protect ones wallet?

Berlin Wall, a copy left artwork masterpiece before its time! 🙂
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I took this particular example, but I could have talked about any art practices especially in contemporary arts and digital arts. As Jonathan Lathem mentioned it with many examples : “it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.” Who can pretend to create something totally original? Aren’t we “convert to art, by art itself”? But what is the limit between influence and plagiarism? Cryptomnesia and conscious choice? Those are questions I had to ask myself for my Ph.D. research especially because I’m asked to create and develop something original with my research. From my experience, I would say that it’s totally pointless to prove that you are the creator, and the sole inventor, of an original idea. What matters is what you do with it, concretely 🙂

I am very concerned by what Don Swanson called the “undiscovered public knowledge” to define the knowledge we forgot or haven’t been in contact with. According to the author, as the research is getting more and more specialized, we would need people to read across specialties. I couldn’t tell how many times I read articles of art history which gave me a déjà vu impression. As Lethem said, most of us have been “borned backward”, meaning, we know older references in the bias of recent texts. I’ve learned about Aby Warburg’s theory when I read Georges Didi-Huberman. I’ve learned of Alberti’s theory, when I read Erwin Panofsky. Previously, I wasn’t particularly attracted to Henrich Wölfflin’s work because a professor I once had thought he was a very “boring” historian (I read it recently and I found it very brilliant) an so on.

We don’t only forget the precursors, but we sometimes rely on rumors to build our opinion about them. But most of all, we don’t really take or have the time to read each other. Some art journals get more propositions than they actually have readers! The same ideas are running through these journals, but how would the authors have noticed if they didn’t take the time to read each other? They are so much sources, so many publications, especially with the Web, that we can never be sure wether or not we are missing something crucial for our own research. When I think of the publication world, I always have this scary cacophonic image wherein millions of people are talking at the same time while nobody is listening to each other.

I believe the problem comes from a deeper crisis in the research conception itself. Research is, I believe, a process, not a product. A publication is not only the result of a research, it’s not something you can sit on ; it’s a springboard waiting for another act of faith, a new starting point for another research.


Click on image for source

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